In an early episode of the new season of MasterChef Australia (Disney+ Hotstar), there are, suddenly, too few contestants. This is no competitive cull. This show, quite frankly, is too darned nice to even think of axing a bunch of contestants en masse, even newcomers we are yet to know and love. A covid-19 outbreak during production forced them to film an episode with eight competitors missing—a significant setback. Lead host Jock Zonfrillo delivers the news, looks at the 10 contestants in front of him, flashes a smile and says, “The show must go on.”
The irony is horrid.
Zonfrillo, 46, died just before the broadcast of MasterChef Australia’s 15th season. The season had been filmed months ago and so despite his tragic death, here we are now, tuning in to see him alive and enthused every night, like light shining on us from a extinguished star.
The consumption of competitive reality shows involves a conspiracy of pretending between makers and audience, one where we watch episodes produced weeks ago and cheer for them—with a sort of self-perpetuating latency—as if we were watching live sport (just last year, I wrote about how MasterChef Australia is my Indian Premier League.)
The very mention of Zonfrillo makes me think of worry beads. A tall Scot proud of his appetite, Zonfrillo was an experienced chef with an authoritative air, swiftly marking him as top dog alongside fellow hosts food critic Melissa Leong and former MasterChef winner Andy Allen. This fraternal energy was contrasted, somewhat, by Zonfrillo constantly holding beads in hand—even while wearing a kilt for a special episode. Worry beads, called kombolói by the Greeks and Cypriots, may resemble rosary/prayer beads but they are more for focus than spirituality. Consider them ancient fidget-spinners, if you will. Zonfrillo told viewers they helped him focus, helped him cope.
“Are you ready for the first clap of the season?” Zonfrillo opens season 15 wearing a powder-blue three-piece suit, clutching bright yellow beads. His passing casts a shadow over the episode. There is, as ever, much to like but some bits feel particularly unsettling, as when Zonfrillo reacts to a contestant making ramen with chicken feet and gizzards. “What a time to be alive,” he gushes, smacking his lips. It’s hard not to sigh.
This season features contestants like Larissa, who is proud of her Russian-Ukrainian heritage (“it’s a tricky world,” she says, and special guest Jamie Oliver is quick to add that “food brings people together”). One of the twists— in a season themed “secrets and surprises”—is the return of Season 13 contestant Brent Draper who, overwhelmed by anxiety, had a meltdown in the MasterChef kitchen and could not cook further. It was Zonfrillo who sat and counselled Draper two seasons ago, commending him on the courage it takes to draw a line to protect his mental health, and now Draper is back, seemingly more sorted, and in line to win.
That’s the kind of show MasterChef Australia has always been, a great and conflict-free television embrace. It isn’t simply a show about food or cooking. When I was introduced to it many years ago by a TV producer friend who gushed about its production and storytelling, I was struck by its decidedly un-American lack of drama. Going against reality show dogma, this show prizes camaraderie over catfights. This feel-good spirit of the show, where rival contestants pitch in to help one another, is more wholesome than the meals that they cook—which we don’t get to taste.
That affability begins with the hosts. Initially (and, frankly, unforgettably) hosted by Matt Preston, Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris, the show always felt to me like a kind of Top Gear, a hangout show where we saw superbly photographed cars (that we didn’t get to drive), except with food. MasterChef Australia is extremely well-produced television, and your own interest in cooking—or lack thereof—doesn’t get in the way of bingeing on the series, and picking favourites you feel far too strongly about (remember what I said about pretending that it’s sport?).
The warning that must accompany MasterChef Australia is that you should never watch it on an empty stomach. The series celebrates indulgence to such a level that you are best advised to watch after or during dinner, not hungrily and with food-delivery apps at your behest.
That, I guess, is why it feels strange to have lost Jock Zonfrillo. He wasn’t someone whose career I followed, he wasn’t my favourite MasterChef host, and I wasn’t aware of his troubled life—or that he started selling his own line of worry beads once they got noticed on the show. Yet, watching a new season where he unfailingly ends the episodes by encouraging contestants—and viewers—to “put your feet up and be kind to each other”, I realise I miss him. The fact that we sat down with his show at mealtimes, that he peppered our dinner with dad-jokes, all that makes this loss feel oddly personal. Go well, Jock. We may not have known you, but we broke bread with you.